'Land Bought in Blood': Why Anti-CAA Protests at the Kolkata Derby Hold Meaning

Let it not be forgotten that when it came to a swansong, the Kolkata I-League derby produced a politically significant one.

New Delhi: In yet another example of the endurance of the protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the impending National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register, Kolkata’s Yuva Bharati Krirangan on Sunday played host not only to its famed derby but to a story of rivals divided over immigrant identity coming together.

By now, images of the gigantic tifos that were unfurled at the match between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have swept timelines.

The unique nature of the Kolkata derby, its particular situation right now, its moorings in politics and the citizenship question have suddenly become one.

The century-old rivalry between the Mohun Bagan and East Bengal football clubs is anchored on the premise of who lived where before India was partitioned. Mohun Bagan was formed in 1889, and won the 1911 IFA Shield by defeating a British side in what is now the stuff of legend. Its supporter base is primarily Kolkata’s north, which is dominated by the ‘original’ residents of the city, colloquially called Ghotis.

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East Bengal came along in 1920. Its founders were from the eastern region of then undivided Bengal. As the threat of Partition loomed, and men and women from what then became East Pakistan began moving to Kolkata, and the club grew into an expression of hope for the refugees, the Bangals.

A rivalry bloomed like no other.

Matches would be rife with charged taunts ands retorts in the stand to match the on field duel. If a Mohun Bagan player was tackled unfairly, East Bengal fans would be asked to return where they came from. The latter, meanwhile, developed a repertoire of slogans aimed at tugging at the heartstrings of those who have lost their land and home.

The derby always reflected the times. Satyajit Ray’s Jana Aranya, which released in 1976 and focuses on the acute employment crunch in the state, devotes several moments to explore the faces and behaviour of men attending the derby in the heart of the city.

The protagonist and his friend sit on a fence while the derby is on and discuss jobs. As it ends, the friend shouts a question at a fan walking out of the match.

“Sir, are you a pass or an honours (graduate)?” he asks. “I am Mohun Bagan,” comes the reply.

Indeed, youth from Kolkata and its distant suburbs – always political and thanks to administrative and industrial stagnancy, often unemployed – trooped to matches which would often break out into fights which would even lead to deaths. The 1980 derby violence at Eden Gardens where 16 young men died is testament to how fiery things got. Few households in the city do not boast of a member who has returned from a Kolkata derby with a fat lip.

But what could otherwise have been a shameful parade of differences being fostered through football did not become so, chiefly because football was pretty much the only space where Ghotis and Bangals fought. Far from being the source of animosity, the rivalry grew into a testimony of how well the two groups got along with each other in the first place.

But the Bengal where differences only played out on the field is not the Bengal of today. There is increased polarisation and language that had so far remained limited to matchtime heckling has seeped into everyday talk.

One of the large anti-NRC tifos displayed in the East Bengal side of the stand was organised by a group called the East Bengal Ultras.

A group member The Wire spoke to said trolls often target the group’s Facebook page with talk coloured with the prospect of the NRC throwing Bangals out. “It’s not a derby thing, they can be fans of any club and they’ll use such language with us. It started a good while before the CAA was passed, actually. So we thought that we have to address this. We started planning the tifo on December 1 and by December 12 it was ready. The derby was originally scheduled on December 22. But the discourse has only deepened since then,” said the member, who requested anonymity.

Photo: Facebook/East Bengal Ultras

Over two panels, a beloved comic character called Batul the Great lands a solid kick on two villains who threaten him with the NRC. Beneath the two displays is the legend, “Land bought with blood, not with papers.”

Those protesting the NRC and CAA were not just East Bengal fans, as one would suppose. Attendants of the Kolkata derby would argue that the journey to the match, usually held at Salt Lake’s Yuva Bharati Krirangan, is when the match already starts. Lorries of Mohun Bagan fans heckle lorries of East Bengal fans on their way to the stadium, flicking the choicest verbal abuses. Except on Sunday, the pre-match atmosphere of anticipation lent itself to opportunities for fans to take selfies with rival fans. Quite a few of them did away with the club flags and carried what has now become an anti-CAA protest staple – the Indian flag.

The Mohun Bagan side too saw a tifo. “Ever since the sun set over the fields of Plassey, it is us who have taught you to fight looking the enemy in the eye.” And then, in English, “Respect our history, heritage and tradition.”

Another Mohun Bagan banner read, “When we were here, there were no documents.”

Photo: Twitter/@laiciteananyo

The only Indian club to defeat a British side at an international competition now has a more complicated battle to fight. As the NRC debate divides Bengal, its most cherished divide – that over football – stands on the threshold of an end.

With Mohun Bagan announcing its merger with the Indian Super League team ATK and the I-League being prepped for obsolescence by 2025, club football as Kolkata knows it is going to end. The derby that captured the imagination, offered Sunday entertainment to men and increasing numbers of women irrespective of financial background, and made heroes out of footballers will be played just one more time, on March 15.

Who knows if East Bengal, which provided refugees a point of oneness, would be East Bengal without its trusted rival. Who knows if the club, like Mohun Bagan, will be subsumed by an ISL side. Who knows if with the rigid rules of the ISL (among which is the remarkable stipulation that fans cannot stand up) Kolkata football will ever see political expressions as the one it made on Sunday.

Let it not be forgotten that when it came to a swansong, the Kolkata I-League derby produced a politically significant one.